15 November 2018
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Catholicos Gewargis III, patriarch of the Church of the East, left, during a private audience on 9 November at the Vatican.
(photo: CNS/Gregorio Borgia, pool via Reuters)
Shortly after the Ascension of Jesus, his followers moved out into the world beyond Jerusalem. Jerusalem was, in a sense, at the center of the known world. Situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Jerusalem could look to the west and see the Roman Empire and its deeply rooted Greek culture; looking to the east, it would see the whole Asian continent. With Peter and Paul, Christianity moved westward, took root and grew. That is one reason why, when most modern Christians think of Christianity, they think specifically of Western Christianity. The truth, however, is that Christianity also moved eastward and entered a world very different from that of Europe and the Mediterranean.
From that, a different type of Christianity evolved, separated from and often unknown to Christians of the West.
One of the places CNEWA works, of course, is the Middle East; there, one can find some of the most ancient Eastern churches, which date back to the times of the apostles. CNEWA works with all of them. One of these churches is the Church of the East. It is sometimes known as the Assyrian Church of the East and, less accurately, the Nestorian Church.
The Church in the East flourished in the Persian Empire. Since the Persian and Roman Empires were almost constantly at war, Eastern Christians had little contact with their co-religionists in the West. But the achievements of these Eastern Churches were remarkable — and to many Christians in the West, perhaps, largely unknown. There were Assyrian Christian churches in China 1,000 years before the arrival of Francis Xavier. When Charlemagne was crowned by the pope on Christmas Day 800, there was already an Assyrian metropolitan (archbishop) in Tibet!
The first five centuries of Christianity saw a great deal of conflict between Christians over the nature of Christ and salvation. This led to bitter and, at times, violent conflicts between Christians. The Emperor in Byzantium enforced — often violently — the “orthodox” position throughout the empire, although many Christians resisted it.
To some extent, the Church of the East was involved in these controversies. The high (or low) point of the conflict was in the bitter exchanges between Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople and Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. However, politics and geography ended up being more important than theology; and the Church of the East went its own way.
It has a famous school of theology in Nisibis in modern day Turkey, which produced many theologians. These scholars, working in Syriac, a Semitic language, developed their own theology simply outside the context and controversies of Western Christianity.
As a result, the Church of the East has an ancient theology about the nature of Christ that was developed in a Syriac — and not Greek-speaking — world. Although Assyrian Christians were uncomfortable with some of the theological expressions of Western Christianity — such as the title theotokos, “God-bearer,” for Mary — for the most part, their Christology developed independently and without much interaction with the West.
With the advent of the ecumenical movement and with increasing familiarity with the Eastern churches, the Catholic Church began a dialogue with the Church of the East. Accustomed to Byzantine, Protestant and other western theologies, the Catholic Church encountered a very different theological framework in the Church of the East. With great courage and openness, the two churches dealt with their very different attempts to articulate the nature of Christ.
After long and deep dialogue, the Catholic Church and the Church of the East produced a “Common Christological Declaration” on 11 November 1994. The statement declared: “Whatever our Christological divergences have been, we experience ourselves united today in the confession of the same faith n the Son of God who became man so that we might become children of God by his grace.”
While the agreement may not have caused great excitement in the ecumenical world, it was and remains a profound moment in the history of the ecumenical movement and the history of Christian theology. It was, however, an important sign that catholicity is not the same as uniformity. The agreement recognized that there can be different ways of looking at and expressing some very important things — such as the nature of the Incarnation.
It also made clear that those differences need not be a cause for division — to say nothing of hatred and violence.
Nearly 25 years later, it stands as a sign of hope.
Related: Profile of The Church of the East
Tags: Syria Church of the East